Hypatia of Alexandria and her Death

Hypatia of Alexandria, who is considered to be the first woman mathematician, was also the first woman to make substantial contribution to the development of mathematics. She was the daughter of the mathematician Theon, the last Professor at the University of Alexandria.

There is no evidence that Hypatia undertook original mathematical research. However she assisted her father Theon of Alexandria in writing his eleven part commentary on Ptolemy's Almagest. It is thought that she also assisted her father in producing a new version of Euclid's Elements which has become the basis for all later editions of Euclid.

All Hypatia's work is lost except for its titles and some references to it. However no purely philosophical work is known and we only know of her work in mathematics and astronomy. She was an excellent compiler, editor, and preserver of earlier mathematical works and is described by all commentators as a charismatic teacher.

Hypatia came to symbolize learning and science which the early Christians identified with paganism and it was enough for Christian fanatics of Alexandria to antagonize her. She was also seen as a 'stumbling block' to the acceptance the 'truth' of Christianity. She, with her knowledge, expertise, charisma and knack of making difficult mathematical and philosophical concepts understandable to her students, encouraged them to think and ask questions which contradicted the teachings of church.

She became victim of the crossfire between Orestes and Cyril who spearheaded conflicts between Christians and non-Christians of Alexandria. In 412 Cyril, (later St Cyril) became patriarch of Alexandria. However, the Roman prefect of Alexandria was Orestes (a pagan). Cyril and Orestes became bitter political rivals as the church and the state fought for control. Hypatia was a friend of Orestes and this, together with prejudice against her philosophical views which were seen by Christians to be pagan, led to Hypatia becoming the focal point of riots between Christians and non-Christians.

READ:   Polya's Theory of Counting

She was murdered in 415 CE by a Christian mob who attacked her on the streets of Alexandria. On her way home from delivering her daily lectures at the university, Hypatia was attacked by a mob of Christian monks, dragged from her chariot down the street into a church, and was there stripped naked, beaten to death, and burned. She was also severely tortured by scraping off her skin with clamshells (some say roofing tiles). Even those Christian writers who were hostile to her and claimed she was a witch, portray her as a woman who was widely known for her generosity, love of learning, and expertise in teaching in the subjects of Neo-Platonism, mathematics, science, and philosophy in general.

What certainly seems indisputable is that she was murdered by Christians who felt threatened by her scholarship, learning, and depth of scientific knowledge.

Whatever the precise motivation for the murder, the departure soon afterward of many scholars marked the beginning of the decline of Alexandria as a major center of ancient learning.

MORAL OF THE STORY: If you teach math, do not get involved with religious fanatics.

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S. Parthasarathy

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2 Comments
  • Tim O'Neill
    Posted at 04:28h, 10 April

    Wow - lots of errors of fact in his article:

    (i) "Hypatia of Alexandria, who is considered to be the first woman mathematician ... "

    Not by anyone with a detailed knowledge of ancient mathematics she isn't. Amphiclea, Gemina, Marcella and Arete were all, like Hypatia after them, Neo-Platonic philosophers and so, like her, studied mathematics as part of their understanding of the universe.

    (ii) "Hypatia came to symbolize learning and science which the early Christians identified with paganism and it was enough for Christian fanatics of Alexandria to antagonize her."

    Christians had actually come to see "learning and science" as gifts from God to be used, as argued by Clement of Alexandria about 200 years before Hypatia's murder:

    "We shall not err in alleging that all things necessary and profitable for life came to us from God, and that philosophy more especially was given to the Greeks, as a covenant peculiar to them -- being, as it is, a stepping-stone to the philosophy which is according to Christ." (Stromata, VIII)

    This is why Christianity actually embraced Neo-Platonic philosphy and why we find Christians among Hypatia's students (eg Synesius, Heraclian, Cyrus, Euoptis, Olympius, Theotecnus -three of whom went on to become bishops) and her friends and supporters. Absolutely nothing in the source material indicates that her "science and learning" had anything at all to do with her murder - it was a purely political affair.

    (iii) "She, with her knowledge, expertise, charisma and knack of making difficult mathematical and philosophical concepts understandable to her students, encouraged them to think and ask questions which contradicted the teachings of church."

    This is pure fiction. Again, nothing in the sources indicates any such thing.

    (iv) "She became victim of the crossfire between Orestes and Cyril who spearheaded conflicts between Christians and non-Christians of Alexandria. In 412 Cyril, (later St Cyril) became patriarch of Alexandria. However, the Roman prefect of Alexandria was Orestes (a pagan)."

    More nonsense - Orestes was also a Christian. This was not a religious conflict between science-loving pagans and science-hating Christians. It was a political struggle for dominance and authority between the established imperial authority, the prefect, and the new imperial office, the bishop. Both were Christians and religion played no part in their dispute. It was city politics.

    (v) "Even those Christian writers who were hostile to her and claimed she was a witch, portray her as a woman who was widely known for her generosity, love of learning, and expertise in teaching in the subjects of Neo-Platonism, mathematics, science, and philosophy in general."

    Wrong again. The contemporary accounts make no claims at all that she was "a witch:" and hold her in high regard, mourning the fact that such a learned and noble person got dragged into the city's violent "political jealousies". The "witch" accusation came centuries later, in the account of John of Nikiu and it seems to be his addition. Nothing from the time indicates this was an accusation made against her by her enemies.

    (vi) "What certainly seems indisputable is that she was murdered by Christians who felt threatened by her scholarship, learning, and depth of scientific knowledge."

    That is not only not "indisputable", it's not supported by any of the contemporary evidence. There no hint that her scholarship etc had anything to do with her murder. None.

    (vii) "the departure soon afterward of many scholars marked the beginning of the decline of Alexandria as a major center of ancient learning."

    And this is more fantasy. There was no "departure soon afterward of many scholars" - that's pure fiction. And Alexandria remained a centre of learning long after her death. Hierocles, Asclepius of Tralles, Olympiodorus the Younger, Ammonius Hermiae or Hermias all taught there in the century after her murder, totally unmolested by monks. In fact Aedisia was another female, pagan philosopher who taught there and was widely admired and yet remained unmurdered. What actually caused the decline of Alexandria's schools was the series of destuctive wars with the Persians that drained the resources of the Eastern Empire in the sixth century and then the Muslim conquest in 641 AD.

    So what you've written here is a fairy tale which has no foundation in the evidence. It's a regularly repeated fairy tale, largely because it plays into a lot of people's prejudices and confirmation biases. But actual scholars have debunked it as a pseudo historical myth long ago. See Maria Dzielska's comprehensive monograph on Hypatia and the myths that have arisen around her - *Hypatia of Alexandria (Harvard,:1995)

    • Gonit Sora
      Posted at 16:49h, 10 May

      Thank you for your detailed comment. We will look into the monograph and edit the article where necessary.